Fixing the System: Not a Playoff Model.

The following post is expanded and adapted from a comment I left in response to this morning's post by Bill Connolly at the mothership.

The system, it is broken. Almost every year, we have this problem one way or another whether it's the championship game participants or who gets to go to the big money bowls; someone, somewhere, is angry because their team is left on the outside looking in. I suppose that would be easy enough to ignore if that's all it was. We could just make dismissive comments about people being butthurt and get on with our day. Except it's not just the people associated with the teams that get bent out of shape. We all get into the argument. We take sides, we argue, we get angry. When you have, just as an example, a Minnesota fan arguing with a Miami (FL) fan about whether Alabama or Oklahoma State more deserved the shot at LSU, it's obvious we all care about this. (And of course, from the K-State perspective, pretty much everyone who doesn't wear maroon and orange is up in arms about how we've been shafted yet again -- even our rivals and the other teams that have as much to complain about as we do.)

The first reaction we all seem to have to this is to say the system needs to be fixed, and what we always focus on is that we need more teams so that the teams left out won't have anything about which to complain. Now, personally, I am in favor of a playoff -- indeed, I'm in favor of a Great Big Party playoff, the 16-team version in which all 11 conference champions earn a ticket. That, however, is not because I think it'll fix the system. It's because in my super-hero identity, I champion the smaller colleges, and as a result I have been watching teams participate in playoffs for... well, for a long time. As a result, I can tell you without the slightest hesitation that every single argument against a playoff in the major college structure is bogus.

It won't fix the system, however, because the reason we all get mad is directly related to something completely different. The system isn't broken because deserving teams are left out. It's broken because the nature of the selection process is, if not unfair on its face, entirely too prone to accusations that it's unfair. But that's okay; I know how to fix it.

It doesn't matter how many teams you want playing for the title. What matters is how you select them. One major appeal of the 16-team all-champions-in model is that there will be almost no argument about the presence of 87.5% of the field. In a given year, three of the at-larges are almost certain to be obvious, and eleven of the teams will be there with no dispute whatsover (or, at worst, any dispute will be directed at the conference in question for having stupid tiebreakers). But a couple of those at-large teams are going to generate controversy, almost guaranteed. Sure, the vast majority of us at that point will be saying, "So what, we've got the top seven teams in here anyway, and if you wanted to legitimately play for a championship maybe you shouldn't have been ranked eighth."

The solution is at the core of the system. No matter how many teams you're selecting, the selection of those teams must be made either by computers, or by a panel of people whose JOB it is to do so, or a combination of the two. I do not mean writers. I do not mean coaches. I do not mean athletic directors and school presidents. I mean people who are actually dedicated to watch these teams play and openly, transparently, make a decision — a decision they’re going to have to defend to the public.

Seriously, hasn’t anyone stopped to consider that we leave 2/3 of the decision-making NOW in the hands of guys who are asked to fill out a ballot even though at best they’ve managed to catch the freakin’ highlight package of the day’s games? And every single one of these guys has a more important job to do. Voting in the poll is just a lark (and some of them don’t even do it themselves). Worse, almost every one of them has a bias, whether obvious (Hi, Nick Saban, thanks for voting Oklahoma State #4) or subtle (a Harris voter connected to the state of Oklahoma might prefer OSU to Alabama without really considering the matter). They're not accountable. Yeah, the coaches, and some Harris voters, release their ballots. What are you going to do to a voter who decides to get activist and votes Alabama #23? Nothing except mock him, really. Maybe enough of a stink gets raised that he doesn't get to vote anymore, and frankly you may have just done him a favor.

Corruption, though it certainly exists, is not the main issue. I digressed there to cover it, but I need to get back to why having these guys vote the way they do doesn't work. To put in the simplest terms possible, the polls are inherently biased toward the narrative.

I am not (necessarily*) accusing the networks carrying games of deliberately structuring their coverage in order to push a narrative for the purpose of influencing poll voters. However, we have to accept and recognize (and more to the point, the networks have to man up, accept, and recognize) that under the current system, how they cover the sport in and of itself has far too much influence on the voters themselves. If ESPN analysts had been stumping for Oklahoma State, Alabama would be in the Sugar Bowl. If Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson don’t spend an entire half waxing rhapsodic about how glorious a rematch would be and how great the SEC is, maybe Alabama is in the Sugar Bowl. That’s a reality we’re going to have to acknowledge. I’m not mortally offended that Alabama is in the championship; I am mortally offended that the decision was made by people at whom propaganda was being openly fed. Speaking personally, I think Oklahoma State should have been #2; yet the fact that Bob Stoops voted them #2 would have really pissed me off if Alabama had actually had a game yesterday.

Why? Because Bob Stoops was too damned busy doing his job to pay a lick of attention to what Alabama would have done, had they played. The fans of college football get to sit at home and channel surf all day Saturday. When it really comes down to it, as a collective we know more about this stuff than they do. It's a horrible thought, one which the media doesn't want to accept because as they're always quick to point out when they dismiss you, they're professionals. Yeah. The thing is, what we're asking them to do isn't what they're professionals at.

The problem isn't how many teams we have involved. It's deciding which ones. Let's fix that.

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